For those unfamiliar with Helen Garner’s novella, this review shall not spoil the details of the story as retold in this operatic adaptation. Not that plot is so much a driving force in this tale, but the developments of the fragile relationships depicted are an essential part of its dramatic strength. In essence, it is a tale about emotional isolation in suburbia, the loneliness and disappointments within relationships, and the escape and damage of seeking solace or excitement outside of them.
As Dexter (Andrea Carcassi), one of the main characters, keeps pondering, is this “modern life”? Is this all it amounts to? What kind of abstraction is love in the face of seemingly far more potent pain and disaffection? Needless to say, this is not a particularly cheerful piece, but whether it is actively depressing or alienating depends very much on the temperament (and experiences) of the audience members themselves. Mercifully avoiding high angst, The Children’s Bach is a slow-burn exploration of some of the less dramatic or glamorous facets of “modern life”.
The score is certainly quite beautiful, powerful and oftentimes even rather haunting. A rich, surprising and complex piece of composition, the music alone is worth the price of admission, and Andrew Schultz is to be congratulated. Librettist Glenn Perry has taken on the challenging task of adapting Garner’s often quite prosaic words into something compatible with the operatic voice, while never betraying the essential flavour of the suburban doldrums. All this may seem “a bit too modern” for more traditionalist opera patrons, and any of those still suffering from a bit of Cultural Cringe may have trouble accepting such fine singers passionately intoning lines about Hills Hoists and Video Hits.
The cast is uniformly of a high standard, as much a well-rehearsed ensemble as the excellent musicians who back them. Although each of the performers got some shining moments, the most cumulatively prominent role was that of Athena, powerfully portrayed by Kathryn Grey. An engaging performer, Grey was both powerful and understated, emoting a range from disaffection to despair while never seeming for a moment to be extravagant. Indeed, for a character who could come across as fairly unsympathetic, Grey, rather than attempt to make the role more likable, has the confidence to simply be compelling enough that any such judgmental perceptions quickly slide away.
One aspect of this production that particularly stood out was the set design, with no walls or boundaries in the large empty space afforded it in the Merlyn Theatre, but rather… islands. Islands of furniture, little set-pieces (literally) as though individual rooms reduced to their barest essentials of function. A television and a couch. A dining table. A bed and wardrobe. A rabbit cage. All these little nuggets of naturalistic living spaces plopped down in the dark, featureless landscape of the theatre made them seem almost as though suspended in space and time. It served as a tremendously effective visual metaphor, perhaps, for the isolation and emotional distance between the characters, and even the compartmentalisation of different parts of each individual’s life. Many have used a similar approach to set design before, but have rarely achieved it so evocatively. If anything, it seemed that the sprawling set was under-utilised, but perhaps the extra “settings” that were not really used provided a visual purpose as much as a practical one, as though to suggest that this isolation spreads on forever.
While it has the potential to leave some viewers cold, others may well find this new opera to be a very compelling and moving experience. The Children’s Bach might be exploring the seemingly mundane, but in many respects it is within reaching distance of the sublime.
ChamberMade presents the World Premier
The Children’s Bach
after the celebrated novel by Helen Garner
Please note: Despite the title this production is not suitable for children
Venue: CUB Malthouse
Season: 20 June - 5 July, 2008
Tickets: from $24
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au or 03 9685 5111